UC’s Contempo series to take a more European look under Marta Ptaszynska

Wed Feb 24, 2016 at 2:36 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Marta Ptaszynska became artistic director of the University of Chicago's Contempo series this season.
Marta Ptaszynska became artistic director of the University of Chicago’s Contempo series this season.

For the first few decades of its existence, Contempo was pretty much the only game in town for high-profile, locally-produced contemporary chamber music in Chicago.

Founded in 1964 by composer Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago, that game was fearsomely good, however. Shapey wrote fiery music that matched both his own personality and the passion he brought to programming for his ensemble, initially named the Contemporary Chamber Players. In addition to distinguished guest soloists, some of Chicago’s best musicians, including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, appeared as CCP ensemble members.

Over the past 20 years, the city’s contemporary music scene has grown immensely. The Chicago Symphony has its own, lively contemporary chamber music series, and young local musicians are forming ensembles, among them Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion and eighth blackbird that are thriving on the national and international scene.

This year Contempo enters a new era as well. Last season Shulamit Ran, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and Shapey’s longtime colleague on the U of C music faculty, retired after 12 years as Contempo’s artistic director. This season’s five-concert series has been shaped by another U of C colleague, Marta Ptaszynska. After a tribute concert to Ran in October, Contempo’s season continues at 7:30 p.m. Monday with a focus on one of Ptaszynska’s passions, contemporary music from Europe.

Performers will be the Pacifica Quartet, eighth blackbird, and Agate Zubel, a singer-composer from Ptaszynska’s native Poland. Scheduled works are Zubel’s Not I as well as pieces by Ptaszynska, Christophe Bertrand, Alfred Schnittke, and Tadeusz Wielecki, director of the prestigious Warsaw Autumn Festival of Contemporary Music. Zubel, Ptaszynska and Wielecki will participate in a preconcert discussion at 6:30 p.m. moderated by music faculty member Seth Brodsky.

A U of C music professor since 1998, a gifted percussionist as well as a composer, Ptaszynska is an engaging, enthusiastic champion for contemporary music. Her own works–a lengthy list ranging from cantatas to solo percussion pieces–has been performed by ensembles including the CSO and the Cincinnati and Cleveland orchestras. Commissioned by the Warsaw National Opera, her two children’s operas have received close to 200 performances. She has received numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, and such soloists as Evelyn Glennie have performed her percussion pieces.

Now in her early 70s, speaking in rapid-fire, accented English, Ptaszynska said that music has always been a driving force in her life. Born in 1943, she grew up in Poland and came to the U.S. in 1972.

“From as early as I can start remembering,” she said during an interview in her cozy studio overlooking the University of Chicago’s serene quadrangle, “I was already playing the piano. I loved the piano; I very much liked to improvise.”

Her father, an arts-loving engineer, composed and played the violin, but Ptaszynska disliked the instrument. “I didn’t like to hear my father play. It sounded to me like it was always out of tune,” she said with a hearty laugh. “It turned out later [we discovered] that I had perfect pitch.”

Ptaszynska studied piano, but her teacher warned that building a solo career would be very difficult in the unsettled political climate of Eastern Europe in the 1960s. She suggested that Ptaszynska look around for an additional performance instrument. Hearing a friend performing on the xylophone, Ptaszynska decided to switch to percussion.

“I looked at her, and I thought, ‘I don’t need to study. I can play that right away.” 

As a young percussionist, she performed in concerts at the Warsaw Autumn Festival. Founded in 1956, the festival’s serious-minded repertoire, which ranged from Penderecki to Boulez, drew audiences from around the world. While attending one of the festivals, a percussion teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music was impressed by Ptaszynska’s playing.  He arranged to have her invited to do doctoral work in Cleveland. She had heard the Cleveland Orchestra in Warsaw in the mid-1950s during one of the orchestra’s international tours and dreamed of studying with their principal percussionist, Richard Weiner.

After coming to the U.S., Ptaszynska married and settled into a composing and teaching career that included posts at Bennington College, University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, Northwestern, University of Indiana and finally University of Chicago.

Past Contempo concerts have included Ptaszynska’s music, and after nearly 20 years with the university’s music department she has strong ideas about the series’ programming. 

“This is a small series inside University of Chicago Presents, but I want to present some very outstanding things,” she said emphatically. “The concert in February is focused on Europe. I want to bring updated things, things that are happening right now in Europe. Next year I’m planning to do instrumental theater [works with especially exotic instrumentation], also a concert with women composers, but women composers from all around the world. You can find concerts with American women composers, but it’s sometime very difficult to find them from elsewhere.

“And this year, on April 16, we’re going to do a concert about visual art inspiring music, composers who do audiovisual things, how art is transformed into music.” (That concert is a double bill with jazz vocalist Grazyna Auguscik and a jazz combo appearing after intermission in a set titled Chopin Can Swing)

As usual, Contempo’s season closes with a pair of concerts featuring music composed by University of Chicago students. Those concerts are May 13 and 20.

“My vision for Contempo is that we actually do some new things, some different things,” said Ptaszynska. “It’s like the festival in Warsaw. They play everything, the spectrum. Sometimes the [musicians] say they don’t like the music, but then they say, ‘We have to play it just to show the spectrum, what it being done now.’

“Some people may not like instrumental theater, but it’s good to know about it. It’s not that we have to play the music that I like, for example. Sometimes I like to [present] music that I’m not really very fond of, but music that it’s important to do.”

The next Contempo program features Tadeusz Wielecki’s The Thread is Spinning, Christophe Bertrand’s Madrigal, Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 2, and Marta Ptaszynska’s Mosaics. Concert time is 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Logan Center for the Arts. chicagopresents.uchicago.edu; 773-702-8068.

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